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Seeker


‘Greetings, friends.’ The half dozen men and women sitting around the small fire all started in surprise. Two of the mercenaries jumped to their feet, drawing their swords, as the black-robed figure stepped closer to the warmth of the fire. ‘You’ve no need to fear me. I am a Seeker.’ The man pulled back the hood of his robe to reveal a strong face, marked with scars. The two mercenaries visibly relaxed at his words. As the robed man settled by the fire, they too sat down, but did not sheathe their weapons. The newcomer smiled slightly, as if at some private joke. ‘Tell us, holy one. What truths do you seek?’ asked Sarrar, the leader of the small merchant caravan. ‘I am no holy man. I seek truths different from those of the gods.’ Sarrar glanced around at the others by the fire. Seekers who weren’t driven by their faith in the gods were rare indeed. ‘Please, good sir, it is a long and dark night. Won’t you tell us...’ he tailed off as the stranger looked at him, again with that slight smile of his, but Sarrar found that it didn’t put him at ease at all. ‘You wish to hear my tale? It seems one of the fates I must endure is to tell my story every night, but so be it. My name - or rather, my professional name - is Sabre.’ Everyone shuffled nervously, and the mercenaries again lifted their weapons. All of them had heard of Sabre. He was one of the most feared men in Tarra, the imperial capital. His ruthlessness and cruelty were almost legendary. Sarrar swallowed hard. ‘Well, at least that explains how you managed to get past our guards and creep up on us so easily. When did you turn your path?’ he asked nervously. The Seeker fingered a simple pendant hung about his neck. ‘I was "educated" by one wiser than myself. This was my lesson...’ Sabre strode through the streets of Tarra, marvelling at the way no one recognised him. All of them had heard his name, and feared it, yet he was able to pass without harm. Swiftly, he walked to the gates into the noble district, and the guards came out to meet him. He reached into his pocket and showed them the token that allowed him to pass into the area with his weapons. He had paid a lot of money and called in several favours for that token, ensuring he would never need to part with the trade-mark from which he had chosen his name. The guards let him pass without a word, recognising him from previous visits. The only time he went this way in the light of day was on the business of one of the imperial mages, and no sane man stood in their way of their wishes. Sabre walked on, almost laughing aloud as the richly dressed nobles around him smirked at his common dress. He knew he could buy out most of the fools here many times over. Just to have something to spend his wealth on, he maintained five houses in this district of the imperial capital, the most expensive part of the world to own property. Quite simply, he was the best in the city, perhaps in the world, and he knew it. His fees were astronomical, but he had never failed to fill his contract. Here, where actual assassination was almost as common as political assassination, his services were called upon often. Sabre walked without fear to the twin towers of Charillar and Tana. Everyone knew that the two wizards were the real power of the Empire, controlling the Emperor as little more than a puppet. Individually, they were two of the most powerful mages of the land, but together they were a force that was all but unstoppable. Sabre came to a halt in the centre of the magical circle inscribed upon the paving stones between the towers and gazed upwards while he waited. Needle-thin, the towers seemed to touch the sky. It was said that they could be seen from hundreds of miles away, marking the position of the capital to land and sea travellers alike. Then he was summoned, and the towers and sky disappeared. He found himself inside a richly decorated room. Thick carpets and cushions covered the floor, and hangings studded with jewels and precious metals almost dripped from the walls. ‘Welcome, Sabre. Do join me,’ purred the woman lying languidly in the cushions. She wore only a gossamer thin veil draped across her body, and she was the most beautiful woman that Sabre had ever seen. He knew better than to allow his gaze to slip away from her face, for this was Tana herself, and she had killed men for much less. He looked away, for the moment concentrating on finding a comfortable spot in the cushions and settling himself down. Then he looked back at her, locking his gaze to her eyes. ‘You summoned me.’ ‘Charillar will join us in a moment. Can I offer you refreshment? Ale, brandy, elven wine perhaps?’ ‘Water would be fine, thank you.’ Tana spread her fingers towards him, and a crystal decanter of clear, iced water appeared in the air beside him, a tumbler beside it. ‘Always the professional, Sabre. Don’t you ever allow yourself time to enjoy yourself?’ ‘I have seen too many men and women die because they allowed themselves to let go. I have taken advantage of it often enough.’ ‘Do you still watch your victims die? There are some who might find that... disturbing.’ ‘Rather that than hear they survived the poison or the blade. I trust no account but the one given by my own eyes.’ ‘And do those eyes enjoy what they see?’ asked the mage seductively. Sabre smiled slightly, preferring to say nothing rather than fall into the verbal trap. Tana continued. ‘You must come here one evening. None of your enemies could reach you. And if you wish for company, then I’m sure we could arrange something for you.’ She gestured around the room, and suddenly Sabre was surrounded by a score of impossibly beautiful women. He inclined his head towards Tana. ‘Much as I appreciate the offer, Lady Tana, I’m afraid I must decline. I never mix business and pleasure.’ Tana snapped her fingers and the women disappeared. ‘Are you saying that you don’t enjoy your work?’ ‘It is a different kind of pleasure.’ ‘Of course,’ said Tana. A figure slowly materialised on the cushions beside her. ‘Ah, Charillar joins us.’ The man was as handsome as Tana was beautiful. He leaned across to kiss Tana, and as they greeted one another, Sabre concentrated on making sure he was pouring his water in to the tumbler without spilling any. ‘We have a problem,’ said Charillar after a moment. Sabre always preferred talking to him rather than Tana. Aside from other distractions, he was much more direct than the female mage. Sabre knew that he still had to be careful about everything that was said. ‘What might this problem be?’ he asked neutrally. ‘We have a rival,’ said Tana. Sabre almost laughed aloud at the statement. These two had only ever known defeat at the hands of each other. Once, they had been enemies, but had realised the futility of their constant battle, overcoming their differences to join forces. Together, they had sunk islands, routed armies, slain the mightiest of dragons. Sabre couldn’t believe that anyone would even dare to set up in opposition to them. ‘Who might this rival be?’ he asked, keeping his voice level. ‘We don’t know,’ said Charillar, an almost childlike indignation creeping into his tone. ‘This is what we want to hire you to find out.’ ‘You want me to be your spy? With all due respect, surely your magic would serve you better than I could ever hope.’ ‘Don’t be a fool, Sabre. Of course we tried our magic before we ever contacted you. Even our most powerful spells fail against this stranger’s protection. We can’t see him, nor look inside his home.’ ‘So what do you want me to do?’ ‘Find out everything you can about him, and then remove him.’ Sabre’s throat was suddenly very dry. He sipped some water, but it didn’t help much. ‘If this person’s magic is as strong as you say it is, the task won’t be easy.’ ‘Of course not,’ purred Tana, pushing her lustrous golden hair back from her face. ‘That’s why we want to hire the best.’ In spite of himself, Sabre felt a warm glow. It was always nice being called the best by someone as accomplished as Tana. ‘My fee won’t be small,’ he said. ‘Think of your fee, and then multiply it by ten,’ said Charillar. ‘Do whatever needs to be done. We shall talk again when you’ve finished.’ And suddenly, Sabre stood outside once again. He walked away, smiling. While it was nice to be working, he might just retire after this job. Charillar had as good as given him an open chest of gold... or a wagon... or more. Sabre cared little that the wealth would be magically created - it spent as easy as the real thing. Wasting no time, he moved swiftly towards the address that one of the mages had placed in his mind. He was surprised that it was in the poorer section of the city, but he was not disappointed. There were fewer militia in the poor districts. Then, as he was making his way through the busy market, his attention was caught by a small crowd. Curious, he joined the group, and worked his way towards the front. There, he saw a seated figure, wearing rough gloves, and dressed in a dirty and worn robe that covered the face. Then, the figure beckoned at one of the people crowding around, and felt inside a bag. After a moment, the figure drew out what looked like a charm on a leather thong, and wordlessly handed it to the onlooker who had been called forward. The man stuttered his thanks and stepped back into the crowd. Sabre was about to dismiss this as just another fortune teller when the figure pointed to him and beckoned to him. Without really knowing why, he shuffled forwards, aware, and not liking, that he was the centre of attention. He was expecting the mysterious luck-merchant to reach again into the bag, but instead, he was given one of the charms hanging around the crone’s own neck. Then, as the gloved hand closed his fingers over the pendant, he felt a compulsion to give something in exchange, and reached inside his pocket to hand over a gold coin. Then, ashamed at pandering to such superstition, he turned and hurried away. About ten minutes later, Sabre arrived at the address he had been given. The place was outside the city walls, and was little more than a tumble-down shack. Sabre simply could not believe that such a poorly-built hovel would house a mage who was powerful enough to worry Charillar and Tana. Still, this was where they had told him to go, and here he was. Sabre looked around for a good vantage point. There were none that would offer as good a view as one of the huts on the other side of the muddy street. Selecting one at random, Sabre strode through the door without even knocking. Inside, a peasant family scrambled away from him. ‘Wh... what do you want?’ demanded the dirty, ragged man who was apparently the head of the household. ‘Your hovel.’ Sabre took a bag of gold coins from his belt and tossed it at the man’s feet. ‘Go. Do not return for at least two days.’ Without even seeing if they followed his orders, Sabre settled himself in the shadows by the window to observe the shack opposite. The family quickly scurried out. Sabre had given them enough gold to set up their own business, if they wanted to. He would be paid well enough by the two wizards to be generous now. The day dragged on. There was little activity in the street outside. These people had no work to go to, nothing to do but scrape a living from the gutters of the wealthy city of Tarra. With nothing else to occupy him, Sabre started to dream of how he would spend the income from this job, wondering to where he might retire. Then the master-assasin jerked in surprise. The robed fortune-teller from the market was standing in the middle of the street before the hut, turned towards him. He had been sure to hide himself out of sight, but as soon as he looked up, the figure beckoned to him, turned, and went into the house he was supposed to have been watching. Momentarily, he considered not following. But he realised that was foolish. The wizard had known he was there; his cover was blown. Wearily, he got to his feet and crossed to the open door of the other place. If he got out of this alive, at least he could use it as reconnaissance for later, clandestine visits. He was surprised when he entered. The door had only shown a dark and heavily shaded interior, but the moment he stepped through the doorway, it changed to a brightly lit country cottage. Through the window, Sabre could see a neatly kept garden where the mud track should have been. He glanced behind him, and through the door could see the proper scene. Sabre narrowed his eyes. He should have been expecting this. He had been warned that this place was magical, and would have to beware everything he saw and heard here. ‘Welcome,’ A woman spoke as she came into the room from what looked like some kind of kitchen, carrying a tray that held a plain clay jug and two bowls. She looked in her late twenties, some ten years Sabre’s junior, and was wearing a plain and faded dress. ‘Who are you?’ demanded Sabre. ‘Where is the old woman who just came in?’ ‘That would be me,’ said the woman, setting down the tray on a table and indicating that he should be seated opposite her. ‘I was expecting to find you here after I saw you in the market. I have travelled far to meet you, Sabre. Would you care for a drink?’ The woman poured a reddish fruit juice into the two bowls and offered one to Sabre. He ignored it. She shrugged, and drank from hers. ‘How do you know me? Only my employers know my face.’ ‘I recognised you by your soul, not by your features. I know you as well as I know myself, perhaps even better, for I managed to step back and see what I became before it was too late. ‘I, too, was once like you. I was with the Guild of Assassins in Amiceen, selling my services to whoever would pay. I asked no questions - all I needed was a time and a place, and I did what was necessary, with a different method every time, of course. The Guildmaster knew my skill, and my name was spoken only with praise among my peers, with terror by the common folk.’ She smiled a tiny smile, perhaps at the memory. ‘Oh yes, I had a bright future. I might even have rivalled you one day.’ She laughed bitterly. ‘You still haven’t answered my question. Who are you?’’ ‘I have no name now, but in times past I used to be called Shadow, just as you are now Sabre. Perhaps you have heard of me?’ Her voice rose slightly, the question testing her fame, yet untainted by pride. ‘I heard that Shadow was dead.’ Sabre spoke bluntly. What she had told him so far was not really a surprise to him. The woman smiled tiredly. ‘What were they supposed to say? That their pride, their most ruthless and efficient assassin, had gone soft? That she was making a living selling charms and fortunes instead of death? It was easier for them to call me dead. And believe me, they tried to turn the fiction into truth. It has been a long road for me, and a difficult one. I had to use all my skills to avoid capture.’ ‘What made you change?’ Despite himself, Sabre was curious. If she really was the assassin who had been known as Shadow, he wanted to know the true story. Over the years, he had come to view his professional colleages with some kinship. He had head many tales of Shadow’s skill, one of his victims even going so far as to call down the anger of Shadow upon his own head in vengeance. Shortly before he heard news of her death, he had even been preparing to make the month-long sea voyage to Amiceen to meet her. He had been saddened when he heard she had died. ‘One day, as I was walking in the market, a stranger gave me a charm, that same one you now have around your neck. He only said a few words: “Your soul is empty. Why must you destroy so much of something of which you have nothing?” I never did see him again, or find out who he was, but he spoke the truth. At first, I dismissed him as just an old fool, much as you did to me earlier today. But my mind was idle, and I started to think about what he had said. I took stock of my life, and realised I had no friends, no family, no nothing. I saw that I had made nothing of my life, of myself. I was simply the tool of others.’ ‘Worthless sentiment. I make a good living for myself.’ ‘Do you, as did I, look into the eyes of your victims?’ Sabre shuffled uneasily. She knew him too well. ‘What are you looking for, empty one?’ Sabre had no answer. Without breaking eye contact, the woman’s eyes challenged him to find her one. For the first time in a very long while, he felt helpless. The silence stretched long. The moment he broke eye-contact, Sabre knew that he had lost. ‘I was told you are a powerful wizard,’ he blustered, ‘Why should I believe any of this? What do you want here?’ ‘Those two who wish death on me,’ she gestured towards the towers in the city, ‘are fools. They know the cost of everything, but the value of nothing. In their arrogance, they believe that strength is everything. All I do is use the power of their magic to deflect it away from me. It takes the lightest touch, but they refuse to acknowledge that they could be defeated by one weaker than they. I am not here for them. I am here for you.’ ‘As am I for you. Thank you for telling me you have little magical power. It makes my job that much easier.’ Sabre moved easily towards the woman. Without seeming to move, she stood and stepped away from him with an easy fluidity, but made no move to escape. She held up a hand as he moved after her. ‘Wait.’ she said, ‘Allow me a moment more before you end my life.’ Sabre halted, allowing her the time she asked. After all, she could not escape, and she did have the kinship of their dark profession. ‘I have been seeking you for my whole life, Sabre, though I did not know it at first. I look at you now and I know that my quest has not been wasted, that I reached my redemption in time to perhaps save another.’ She reached into a pocket of her dress and Sabre started, expecting a thrown knife or tiny crossbow. Instead, she produced a long, slim dagger and held it towards him, handle-first. ‘As I said, my journey has been long. It is time for it to end, as I knew it must the moment you walked through my door. I thought that I was the best, but I was wrong. I hoped that if I could change, then so could you, he with the emptiest soul of all.’ ‘You have failed,’ said Sabre, gripping the handle of the dagger she had offered him. ‘and let the thought of that failure follow you into your grave.’ He made to stab her, but with unexpected strength, she gripped his arm firmly, the point just scraping the fabric of her dress. ‘Have I? Have I failed, Sabre? Look into my eyes as my life slips away, O Master of Assassins. Maybe you will finally see that thing you don’t even know you are looking for.’ Abruptly, she pulled the dagger towards herself, and Sabre felt the blade grate past her ribs as it penetrated to her heart. By force of habit, he looked into her eyes as the life slipped from her, and... ‘And what?’ asked Sarrar as Sabre stopped dead, again fingering his pendant. All the mercenaries were listening now, leaning forward to catch his soft words. ‘What did you see?’ ‘She was right, you know,’ Sabre was barely whispering now. ‘About what?’ ‘Everything. The moment I looked into her eyes, I knew I had lost, that I had destroyed my chance of salvation. I saw everything that I was. My soul was a void, I existed only to destroy. But worst of all... worst of all, I saw no hate, no fear in her. I saw how full she was of understanding, mercy, compassion, forgiveness. She had sacrificed her life solely to save mine. In my anguish, I tried to save her, but my blade was too accurate, the thrust too strong, my knowledge of the healing arts too small. Compared to her, I was nothing. I am nothing. In spite of my reputation, my skill, my wealth, I am worthless. ‘This is what I seek, my friends. I seek atonement for myself, all the crimes I have committed. I seek the wisdom and knowledge that I so foolishly destroyed on that day. ‘I seek my soul.’



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Thanks to Andrew M. McLeish for this contribution!

 


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